NEW YORK - All you need to know about the kind of night Claude Giroux had in Game 1 against the Rangers is this: He had one good, clean look at a shot on goal all night, and he lifted his stick so high and swung it so wildly that he might as well have been Carl Spackler decapitating another one of Bushwood Country Club's chrysanthemums.
The puck sailed wide of the net into the far corner of the rink, the only moment of note Giroux generated in the 17 minutes, 8 seconds he spent on the ice Thursday, and one game into this series, all the talk of matchups and playing styles and the identity of the Flyers' starting goaltender is already growing tiresome and, in a way, irrelevant. Ray Emery wasn't the issue in Game 1, and he's unlikely to be the issue when he starts Game 2 on Sunday. No, the more urgent problem for the Flyers was that their best player was a ghost, and he can't be anymore.
"It's good pressure, I think," Giroux said. "You want to be in this position. You want to be in the playoffs. You want to be in charge, and you want to be the one making a difference. That's the best part about the playoffs."
This is nothing more than the burden every great player has to bear in the postseason. Giroux is the Flyers' captain and leading scorer. They won 21 of the 24 games in which he scored a goal. As he goes, they go. This obligation to meet the measure of his talent and competitive nature comes with the territory, and though Giroux has been able and willing to handle this pressure before, something about the Rangers - and perhaps one pair of defensemen in particular - leaves him weakened. Over his five games (four in the regular season, one in the playoffs) against the Rangers, Giroux not only hasn't scored, he's managed just four shots on goal, and he has to figure out a way to free himself against Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, or the Flyers have no hope here.
Before Game 1, Craig Berube had talked of tweaking the Flyers' approach, of relinquishing possession of the puck by dumping it into the Rangers' zone. The payoff would be they would pound McDonagh and Girardi in an attempt to wear them down. The plan didn't make much sense: The whole reason that the Flyers had shaken off their terrible start this season and that Giroux, after going scoreless over his first 15 games, had re-emerged as an elite player and an MVP candidate was that Berube had made puck possession the foundation of the team's system of play.
The adjustment was a predictable failure that 4-1 loss, so Berube spent Friday and Saturday accenting the need for the Flyers to hold on to the puck, and maybe this return to what has been successful will help Giroux in Game 2. Maybe. Boiled down, though, Giroux just has to play better. He has 55 points in 51 career playoff games, so it's not as if he wilts under the heat of the spotlight. But there's a difference between racking up six goals and seven assists over half a dozen run-and-gun games against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2012 and shaking loose of the shadows of McDonagh and Girardi.
"A lot of the time, you've just got to battle through it," Rangers center Brad Richards said. "You know that in the playoffs, coaches are usually going to get their matchups. But for the most part, you know who you're going to be playing against as the series goes. It's up to you, really, to deal with that. You can't run away from it.
"All those players aren't going to run off the ice because they play against you. That's the fun of playoffs: You've got to rise to challenges."
You saw it Thursday night, when Richards had a goal and two assists in the third period. You saw it Friday night, when the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings were locked in a scoreless tie late the third period, and the Bruins had Patrice Bergeron - perhaps the NHL's best defensive forward - and Zdeno Chara - perhaps its best defenseman - on the ice, and it didn't matter. Pavel Datsyuk reached back to collect the puck in center ice and seemed to materialize inside the Boston zone, weaving through the Bruins to rip a wrist shot past goaltender Tuukka Rask for the game's only goal.
It was a wondrous individual play, and sometimes a series turns on nothing more than that: a team's best player playing at his best. More than anything, the Flyers need the same kind of moment from Claude Giroux, and they need it now.